Feature Article - October 2009
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Blazing a Trail

Designing & Maintaining Trails for Today's Users

By Kelli Anderson

Best-Laid Plans...

Knowing community demographics and surveying wants and needs are an essential place to start. Depending on whether users are younger or older, whether areas will be for walking, running and biking, whether there is interest in all-season use and where there will be high, medium or low traffic are just some of the factors that will determine anything from building materials to locations and design. Ideally, for those communities that have the desire and the foresight to do so, linking trails into an interconnected whole is a great goal.

However, just because you build it does not mean they will come. "Too many build trails for the sake of trails," Macdonald observed of common planning mistakes. "Relying too much on hard-core biking perspectives, you end up with a logical bike network, but if it doesn't engage the public, you haven't lured people out of their cars. You have to look at the broader perspective of the community. Look at all the benefits and kinds of people: the elderly, commercial business, schools trying to reduce busing. Without getting too far into recreation or into transportation, have elements of both."

But while transportation trails built for commuting between residential, school and commercial areas are an amenity most Americans are greatly appreciating in these tougher economic times, it is the recreational trail component that—if done well—makes the destination worthwhile.

Connect the Dots

With hundreds of years of trail blazing under our national belt, it would be logical to assume that the basics of trail design were, well, basic. As nonprofit groups like the Hoosiers Hiking Council (HHC) of Martinsville, Ind., will tell you, however, that simply has not been the case. With 80 miles of deteriorated trails repaired so far in their past 13 years of existence and many more to go, the mostly-volunteer organization spends a majority of its time fixing and replacing poorly built trails.

But whether repairing older systems or creating new ones, certain design factors are a must for long-lasting success. First and foremost, a trail should connect the dots. Identifying key points of visual interest like vistas, meadows or hunting/fishing areas and noting areas to avoid like steep slopes, erodible soils or roads and waterways help determine the places the trail should strive to include. "It's pretty simple," said Suzanne Mittenthall, executive director of the HHC. "Basically you evaluate your land, people find what's pretty, and you connect the dots to build a trail that's sustainable." And while that may sound sensible and downright easy, judging from many trails-gone-bad, it is clearly easier said than done.

Once the land has been surveyed and points of interest are identified, a well-designed trail should include a varied trail pattern that incorporates curves and subtle bends to enhance user interest. Following natural contours and bending around obstacles to disturb natural areas as little as possible, trails will be more aesthetically pleasing and more environmentally sensitive at the same time.

However, there can be too much of a good thing. The placement and degree of curves should be taken into consideration for bikers. Downhill runs, for example should end with a level, straight run equivalent to the length of the slope before entering into a curve. Ensuring there is enough of a turning radius is also necessary to prevent needless accidents.

Too many curves can cause destruction of a different sort. A design element called a switch-back—a path snaking back and forth within visual range of the user—creates a needless temptation for shortcuts. "We do contour curves because switch-backs are really only for steep bluffs," Mittenthall said. "As long as you can't see the arm of it curving back and forth, it's OK. But if users can see it, it becomes a challenge. They end up destroying the trail, the vegetation and cause erosion."

Another way to keep unwanted shortcuts to a minimum is to make entrances and exits of trails the same—as in a closed loop design—or out of sight of one another. Closed loop patterns, connecting all the points of interest, with one entry/exit have the added advantage of discouraging backtracking and reducing user confusion and vandalism.